The New Autism Study: Why The Fine Print Matters

By now you’ve likely heard about the new Autism study out today in Pediatrics.

It’s a solid study that adds great value to the Autism landscape. To help clarify questions raised by the study, the American Academy of Pediatrics has put together a very comprehensive Q&A that is worth checking out.

What’s important to understand about this study is that it represents an evolving understanding of the entire field of Autism. Keep in mind that Autism is not just one condition but a spectrum of disorders. It can be very difficult to diagnose and the goal over the last few years has been to attempt to screen children as young as 18 months and intervene as early as possible with behavioral modalities. This is the type of condition where early identification and intervention does make a huge difference.

So, has there been a true increase in Autism, as the study suggests? Maybe, may be not. Because of our better understanding of Autism and our better screening tests, we are certainly picking up more kids at younger ages. Whether this is a true increase in rate we don’t know yet but we do know we are doing a better job in identifying kids who may have Autism, and that is very important.

And, it’s equally important we remember that not all children initially diagnosed with Autism actually have it. The study notes that 38% who are initially diagnosed with Autism “lose the diagnosis over time.” I can think of 2 reasons for this.

1. Our diagnostic criteria are constantly evolving so some kids stop meeting the criteria for Autism but are found to actually have other behavioral disorders.

2. Our screening tests for Autism are working as they should. A good screening test will always pull in kids who on further testing are found to not have the test they are screened for but have something else.

For either of this situations, this is still good news for these 38% of children because they are still identified as having a behavioral issue that needs pursuing and intervention. That’s significant even if the final diagnosis turns out not to be Autism.

More studies will need to be conducted to tease out where we truly are in numbers but studies like this help us see that we are making progress in a very confusing situation.